6 February 2013




GILBERT: Finance Minister Penny Wong; I spoke to her a short time ago and began by asking her about the RBA’s decision to keep rates on hold, and I asked her whether or not the easing cycle had come to an end.

WONG: Obviously monetary policy is a matter for the RBA, but let’s remember where the Australian economy is. We’ve got growth around trend, we’ve got low unemployment, contained inflation and interest rates lower than at any time under the Liberals, despite what Tony Abbott and John Howard promised prior to the 2007 election. But the primary issue for Australia has always been the global economy and how do we manage the risk, not so much within Australia, but in Washington and in Europe.

GILBERT: But you share the sentiment of Governor Stevens and the RBA, that things have abated at least for the time being?

WONG: I agree with that assessment and, as the Treasurer said, we’ve seen some of that risk abate, some of that volatility abate, but, obviously, that still remains the context for what Australia is operating in, is the global economy that has some volatility in it. What we need to continue to see is a strengthening positing in the United States, a resolution of their fiscal issues which they’ve partially dealt with, and of course the matters in Europe need to be resolved.

GILBERT: Onto a few other issues relating to the economy. The Greens are going to move a motion in the Senate today, supported by the Coalition so it looks like it will get through the Upper House, that essentially that it’s in the public interest to release the amount of revenue raised by the mining tax. Why doesn’t the Government just back this and allow it to happen?

WONG: I want to be clear on is this: the Government has been advised that, in accordance with the privacy provisions of the tax law, that we’re not in a position to receive – so we haven’t received – and therefore not to provide to the public, details of the MRRT revenue because it might breach those provisions. That’s not our decision. That’s what we’ve been advised. And remember, the administration of tax laws is not something the Government decides, it’s a matter for the statutory authority – the office of the ATO.

GILBERT: So, you’d actually prefer the details out there if you could?

WONG: What I’m saying is that’s the law and we’ll comply with it. Now, we do recognise the importance of transparency, and I’ll make two points. We do publish every month a resource rent tax revenue line and I did so in December. And the Government also, through the Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury, has announced that we’re looking at how we can make our tax laws more transparent.

GILBERT: So, in the political sense, would it be in your best interest, the Government’s best interest, just to say let’s get it out there, or are revenue’s that low that you don’t want to?

WONG: Well, it’s not in the political interest of anybody, nor in the interest of the country, for governments to ignore what the law says.

GILBERT: But it looks like you don’t want them out there because the revenues haven’t come in.

WONG: We’ve been upfront about the fact that revenue has been hit as a result of what’s happened on global markets and the volatility in commodity prices. So, it’s not that we haven’t been upfront about that, Kieran, but that’s the law …

GILBERT: Let’s move on. There’s another suggestion that the Government’s holding back on subsidies to car manufacturers – this is the front page of the Financial Review today. Why is the Government worried about the electorate knowing how much car companies are receiving?

WONG: Let’s be very clear about who’s the decision maker here. And you might recall that we have in government in fact reformed our Freedom of Information laws – we’ve abolished what the Howard Government had in place which were conclusive certificates where Ministers could just sign off and say this will not be released. This is a decision made by public servants. We don’t interfere with it. I can tell you as Finance Minister there are FoI requests that you or other journalists or members of the public can put to the Department of Finance; they make that decision completely independent from me and this is a decision from the Department.

GILBERT: But it seems odd if we know what was promised to the car companies. The Prime Minister and Government makes a big deal of that when the amounts are committed but not the actual amount when it’s delivered …

WONG: We’ve made public what the Car Plan is, which is over $5 billion out to 2020. The decision on what specifically can be released under this application is a decision for the Department. But I’d make a broader point here: the Opposition; on the one hand we have Tony Abbott saying ‘I’m for manufacturing’ and he goes into factories and tells everybody ‘I’m for manufacturing’, but at the same time his policy would actually ensure the support for the car industry – which the industry itself says is critical to its continued viability here in Australia – would be removed. Now, what would that mean to our economy? Well it means not only the directly employed people in that industry would have their jobs at risk, but all the people who are indirectly employed through the supply chain. It also means, if you’re thinking about what you want in an economy which is a diverse economy, a resilient economy, you lose that advanced manufacturing capability. So, let’s be clear. Tony Abbott is no friend of manufacturing workers.

GILBERT: I want to ask you about a few other matters. Superannuation. Some former Labor Ministers who were key in the development of super are warning the Government against increasing taxes on superannuation. Are you worried about the impact on certainty and, if you do make these changes, won’t people resent having their savings taxed retrospectively?

WONG: A couple of things. First, Labor built the superannuation system in this country –

GILBERT: That doesn’t mean you can wreck it …

WONG: – and Labor will continue to ensure we have a strong and stable superannuation system …

GILBERT: But the uncertainty, doesn’t that just create uncertainty? People will be reticent about putting more money …

WONG: Let me just answer the question. We built the system. And we built it over the vehement opposition of the Coalition who have never been supporters of superannuation. And we are increasing the superannuation guarantee. We are strengthening the system. But what I would say about this and, obviously I don’t respond specifically to speculation, but I would make a broader point. As the Finance Minister, there are a lot of people who say you should do this, you should do that, you should do this. And there are lots of good policy proposals out there and often when you make decisions you have to prioritise, not between something that’s good and bad but between two good things. If we want things like the National Disability Insurance Scheme; so important to a fair Australia. If we want things like our investment in schools; to lift the standard of our education system so our children can not only compete but prosper in the Asian Century, then we’re going to have to make decisions to prioritise. We can’t simply do what Mr Abbott does which is spit out a few slogans and expect that to suffice for an economic plan.

GILBERT: That sounds like that’s where you’re heading …

WONG: No. I’m making a broader point that budgets are about priorities. On super …

GILBERT: So you’re willing to have the fight on this issue …

WONG: The interesting thing on super is that you’ve got the Coalition saying on the one hand ‘we’re now going to defend superannuation’ after being vehement opponents of it, but at the same time, they want a tax hike on the superannuation of one third of Australia’s workforce. So, over 3.6 million Australian workers who get a tax cut on their super under us, a tax hike under Tony Abbott. That’s his priority. His priority is to tax working Australians, low income Australians, more.

GILBERT: Let’s wrap up with a couple of other matters. Some of your colleagues accepted hospitality from the Obeid family at their ski chalet. No one really wants to be mentioned in these circles at the moment, do they?

WONG: On that matter, Tony and Stephen have been fully transparent and have disclosed that stay.

GILBERT: Your thoughts on this? The scandal obviously just damaging Labor at the moment … it’s a bad look all round.

WONG: What I’d say is that corruption is completely unacceptable – both legally and also ethically.

GILBERT: Kevin Rudd, now, should he be utilised more? Certainly the view of Anthony Albanese and others this week …

WONG: I think all of us have our shoulder to the wheel in what is a tough year against a very aggressive opponent who doesn’t want to talk about what he’s really going to do, but wants to talk in slogans.

GILBERT: (inaudible)

WONG: Kevin’s an important part of our team – we’re all an important part of our team. He’s one of the people that we have to ensure is out there talking to Australians about why Labor should be re-elected and we don’t want Tony Abbott as Prime Minister.

GILBERT: Finally, in the UK, British MPs have voted in favour of legislation allowing gay marriage. You’d welcome that …

WONG: Absolutely. That’s a great step forward, a great step forward.

GILBERT: And David Cameron, having to stare down some opposition within his own party. Views expressed this morning that it’s interesting that you’ve got a conservative Government in the UK delivering this, but the Gillard Government not.

WONG: Well, as you might recall, we have a Coalition Opposition here which is vehemently and impracticably opposed, certainly from Tony Abbott, to any change. This is an issue, I think, it’s time will come here in Australia. I was very pleased that the Labor Party changed its platform and we have a conscience vote. Would be good if Tony Abbott wanted the same.

GILBERT: Minister, appreciate your time.

WONG: Good to be here.